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Narcissism May Have Some Previously Unrecognized Upsides

Are mental toughness and openness to experience positive effects of narcissism?

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Contrary to popular belief, we’re all narcissistic to some degree. Do you know how narcissistic you are? If you're curious to find out, it only takes about five minutes to fill out this interactive online Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) questionnaire, which gauges narcissistic tendencies for educational purposes. Or you could try this "Personality, Leadership, and Self-Esteem" questionnaire, which was created by R. Chris Fraley from the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for educational purposes. Both of these interactive tests should not be taken as any type of psychological advice.

In recent months, there’s been some groundbreaking research that warrants reexamining long-held views and stereotypes about narcissism.

Subclinical Narcissism May Be Linked to Mental Toughness and Better School Achievement

First, a recent international study found that adolescents who score high on certain aspects of subclinical narcissism tend to display more mental toughness and perform better in school.

Although subclinical narcissism includes some of the same features as the clinical syndrome (such as grandiosity and dominance), the authors are quick to point out that someone who displays high narcissistic qualities does not necessarily have a personality disorder. In general, subclinical narcissism is much less extreme than its clinical variant, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which is a psychopathological disorder.

This paper, “Longitudinal Associations Between Narcissism, Mental Toughness and School Achievement,” was published in the September 2018 journal Personality and Individual Differences.

The main takeaway from this study is that subclinical narcissism is correlated positively with mental toughness in adolescence. The authors also conclude that the inclusion of narcissism in the Dark Triad (narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) of personality traits may need to be reconsidered. According to the researchers, if someone scores high on mental toughness, it generally means he or she can perform at his or her very best in high-pressured and diverse situations.

For this study, first author Kostas Papageorgiou, Director of the InteRRaCt Lab in the School of Psychology at Queen's University in Belfast, collaborated with Yulia Kovas, Director of InLab at Goldsmiths University of London, as well as experts from King's College London, Manchester Metropolitan University, Huddersfield University, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Narcissism Represents a Broad Spectrum of Traits That Are Not Simply "Good" or "Bad." We Need to Stop Uniformly Demonizing People as "Narcissists."

Papageorgiou's hypotheses about the constantly maligned trait of narcissism are refreshing, because to the best of my knowledge, he is one of the few experts who explores the nuances of subclinical narcissism and speculates that being a so-called "narcissist" can be a positive attribute in some cases. (For more on this, see, "Why We Need to Stop Throwing the 'Narcissist' Label Around.")

"People who score high on subclinical narcissism may be at an advantage because their heightened sense of self-worth may mean they are more motivated, assertive, and successful in certain contexts,” Kostas Papageorgiou said in a statement. “Being confident in your own abilities is one of the key signs of grandiose narcissism and is also at the core of mental toughness. If a person is mentally tough, they are likely to embrace challenges and see these as an opportunity for personal growth. It is important that we reconsider how we, as a society, view narcissism. We perceive emotions or personality traits as being either bad or good, but psychological traits are the products of evolution; they are neither bad nor good — they are adaptive or maladaptive. Perhaps we should expand conventional social morality to include and celebrate all expressions of human nature."

Papageorgiou recently picked up on this theme in another follow-up study, “The Positive Effect of Narcissism on Depressive Symptoms Through Mental Toughness: Narcissism May Be a Dark Trait but It Does Help with Seeing the World Less Grey,” which was published online Nov. 1, 2018, in the journal European Psychiatry.

One thing that makes this paper unique is that Papageorgiou and colleagues identify a possible correlation between subclinical narcissism, mental toughness, the Big Five trait of openness to experience (OE), and someone's challenge appraisal being geared more towards growth and adventure and less towards fear and threat.

Pexels/Creative Commons
Source: Pexels/Creative Commons

As the authors explain:

“The link between Challenge appraisals and OE may be explained conceptually by the fact that individuals that score high on Challenge perceive change and new experiences as an opportunity for growth rather than as a threat. Collectively, these findings suggest that individuals scoring high on subclinical narcissism and mental toughness may be particularly open to experiences. Particularly, that they possess the inclination and confidence to seek out new opportunities for personal growth.”

In addition to the possible upward spiral facilitated by subclinical narcissism regarding openness to experience and new opportunities for personal growth, this pioneering investigation by Papageorgiou et al. suggests that subclinical narcissism may be linked to fewer depressive symptoms. In fact, the authors found that the “path model” from subclinical narcissism to higher mental toughness to a positive outcome was a reliable and strong predictor of lower symptoms of depression. Explicitly, their results suggest that subclinical narcissism was associated with roughly a 30 percent variation in depressive symptoms.

There are a few caveats: This study has a laundry list of limitations (e.g., cross-sectional design, self-reported questionnaires, etc.). It’s important to proceed with caution before heralding the aforementioned possible upsides of subclinical narcissism as a universal “blessing in disguise.” And, of course, there are mountains of empirical and anecdotal evidence reaffirming that NPD is a personality disorder with countless downsides.

That being said, the authors conclude:

“The present investigation has direct theoretical and indirect applied implications. The findings support the view that subclinical narcissism (SN) is a complex personality trait involving both positive (grandiose) and negative (vulnerable) aspects. Exploring its relation to prosocial traits, such as mental toughness (MT), can be particularly helpful when trying to identify and promote subclinical narcissism adaptive tendencies. Studying the proposed path model from SN to higher MT, while considering other personality traits (e.g., Openness to Experience) and the distinction between grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism, may explain and predict variation in psychiatric symptoms. Considering the malleability of personality traits, joint intervention programs could promote the adaptive—rather than maladaptive—aspects of subclinical narcissism and train mental toughness in an attempt to reduce depressive symptoms and possibly other psychiatric symptoms.”


Kostas A. Papageorgiou, Andrew Denovan, Neil Dagnall. "The Positive Effect of Narcissism on Depressive Symptoms Through Mental Toughness: Narcissism May Be a Dark Trait but It Does Help with Seeing the World Less Grey." European Psychiatry (First published online: November 1, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.eurpsy.2018.10.002

Kostas A. Papageorgiou, Margherita Malanchini, Andrew Denovan, Peter J. Clough, Nicholas Shakeshaft, Kerry Schofield, Yulia Kovas. "Longitudinal Associations Between Narcissism, Mental toughness and School Achievement." Personality and Individual Differences (First published online: April 25, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2018.04.024

Kostas A. Papageorgiou, Ben Wong, Peter J. Clough. "Beyond Good and Evil: Exploring the Mediating Role of Mental Toughness on the Dark Triad of Personality Traits." Personality and Individual Differences (First published online: June 24, 2017) DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2017.06.031